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Posted on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 : 5:03 a.m.

Ann Arbor Art Center's 'Annual' exhibit an ambitious overview of regional works

By John Carlos Cantu

All is not as it seems in this year’s Art Center “Annual”—and that suits juror Mark Nielsen just fine.


Barbara Eko Murphy's water-media piece "Tulip Signals," featured in the 2010 Ann Arbor Art Center's "Annual."

Image courtesy Ann Arbor Art Center

Director of the University of Michigan School of Art and Design Art Galleries and Intersections Program, Nielsen is also an award-winning designer who got his start as a production designer for the Rolling Stones (among others) and followed that career with a stint as a preparator at the U-M Museum of Art.

Nielsen is also a clever artist who works in the names of “Uncle Art” and “Anti-Art.” But you’d be hard-pressed to find his work because it appears (far too) infrequently and is typically well hidden when it does.

Rarely has an artist consistently embraced the adage that less is really more. And all the more reason to see this latest edition of the Art Center's “Annual.” For of all the transitions of this celebrated statewide event since its inception in 1922, this show is easily among the more memorable in recent years.

Nielsen has planned it this way.

As he says in his juror’s statement, “Having organized and designed exhibitions for nearly thirty years, in a variety of museums, galleries, and for the last 10 years at the U-M School of Art and Design, I’ve ended up with a uniquely wide-angle view of creative work.

“You could say I have a sort of plumber’s view of the art world. It’s given me an unusual perspective on the big questions about what art might be and why some people need to make stuff in order to function as human beings.

“You’d think all of this experience would make it easier to jury a show,” continues Nielsen, “but there are certain problems with having seen so much art. I’m enchanted by every attempt, but painfully aware that there is no such thing as a perfect work, so ultimately I value process over individual works.

“It’s a huge and somewhat dubious responsibility to say that one attempt is more valid or relevant than another, so I find myself looking for a theme from the daunting variety and number of entries. In this way I hope to probe beyond the easier, less imaginative reliance on personal taste.

“I believe,” he says, “that creative work is evidence of a truth beyond normal perception; artists are indeed like canaries in a coalmine. We live in a time of unprecedented paradigm shifts. Huge advances in science and technology have come at the cost of ever-bigger mistakes. The natural world is shrinking and bio-systems are failing at an alarming rate.

“In selecting work for this show,” Nielsen concludes, “I was aware that I was essentially looking at a fairly large cross section of the creative work of regional artists. I can see that, as hyper-sensing beings, many are addressing these concerns to varying degrees. Some are attempting to balance the digital reality with the handmade. Many are expressing feelings of alienation and the loss of community. Some have found a way to convey the haunting dread of ennui that ensues when charm and dignity are sacrificed for expediency and profit.”

This statement is, admittedly, a handful—but it’s also all well worth saying. For what’s amazing is the evidence throughout the Art Center’s second floor gallery that Nielsen has found what he was looking for.

The irony for us is that we, too, have to find it.

This is the reflection of a thinking man’s art with the ponderous conceit and superficial sneakiness tossed out. No work is what it appears at first glance—some implications are aesthetic; others social, political, or psychological—and none is complacent.

Nielsen’s essentially distilled some of the more intriguing regional talent we have around us; as well as uncovered some challenging new talent in the state. Among the 67 artists who had 72 works accepted are regional award-winners Lynda Cole, Doris Foss, Dennis Guastella, Mary Hatch, Judith Jacobs, Joan Painter Jones, Marcia Polenberg, Gloria Pritschet, Bruce Thayer, Cathy Van Voorhis, and Ellen Wilt.

His Best of Show is awarded to Thomas Walsh for his black and white “Lampshade” photograph. Second place went to Martin Hubbard for his oil “Easter.” Third place went to Daria Kim for her ceramic “We are Family.” And honorable mentions were awarded to Yuling C. Bruya for the mixed-media “Woman in Black”; Lawrence Sekulich for the watercolor “Studio Portrait”; and Sandra Steed for the pastel “Afternoon at Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

Walsh’s “Lampshade” shows us what Nielsen had in mind with his selection process. It’s not only the best of a very accomplished group of artworks; it also illustrates the juror’s eye for an accomplished creativity.

“Lampshade”—a relatively diminutive monochromatic geometrically abstract photograph rendering of … well, a lamp shade—is ironically transparent, yet exceedingly restrained. For the shade’s outline is no more than a series of lengthened comb-like diagonal lines flanked against two large triangles of recessed shadow.

This is seemingly not a lot for an artist to work with. But “Lampshade’s” shadows aren’t nearly as stolid as we’d expect of a silhouette. There’s a seemingly infinite tapering in the work’s monochrome recession. The work therefore features an exhilarating grayscale that makes this seemingly simple abstract photograph a profound mediation on the quality of light—and its absence.

It’s also the kind of restraint that one finds in Nielsen’s own artwork where nuance is minutely muted. In Thomas Walsh’s “Lamp Shade,” juror Nielsen has found an astonishingly energetic low-key masterwork that’s as brilliantly “anti-” as his own “uncle’s” art.

“The Annual: All Media Exhibition” will continue through September 26 at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 West Liberty Street. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; and noon to 5:30 p.m., Sunday. For information, call 734-994-8004.

John Carlos Cantú is a free-lance writer who reviews art for


Mark Nielsen

Wed, Aug 25, 2010 : 9:44 a.m.

Thanks for the great review, John. I again commend you on your own "minimalist" approach - you are able to get so much across in such a small space! It was truly an honor and a pleasure for me to be invited to jury this show. Many thanks to the AAAC, and I look forward to serving on your exhibition committee this year. A special thanks to Josie Bockelman and Loren Nosen for their gracious hospitality, and for doing a fantastic job organizing the whole process and hanging the show so beautifully. All the best, Uncle Art